Monday, June 18, 2018

Link anniversary:Fact and fiction of Baltimore transit

Transit can be a geeky affair in which esoteric metrics are batted around way over the heads of a largely indifferent public which consists of a minority of people who actually use transit and a vast majority of car drivers who care about transit usually as much as fish care about bicycles. Yet, they quickly chime in when people call transit performance poor. Transit bashing is almost like an obligation in Baltimore, especially now during the campaign.
The interior of a bus: a view rarely seen by most
(Photo: Philipsen)

On occasion of the anniversary of renaming all Baltimore transit "LINK" MTA offers a video celebrating "Take Transit Week" under the slogan "dump the pump".
Starting on Monday June 18, thru Friday, June 22, MDOT MTA is celebrating "Take Transit Week" by encouraging riders to Dump the Pump! Whether you’re coming from north, south, east or west, BaltimoreLink can get you into and out of Downtown Baltimore. #DumpthePump #mdotnews
In the video a voice says "find out why everyone is excited about "LINK".  So, what is really going on? Is Baltimore transit as terrible as the political candidates and some transit advocates make it or are people "exited about the new LINK"?

Well, when the SUN did the usual street interviews to gauge public sentiment, they didn't find much excitement, at best they found careful optimism. Even MTA Administrator Kevin Quinn is avoiding to call LINK an unmitigated success.  Noting some of the obvious improvements, such as some dedicated bus lanes and some signal priority and more buses being able to report their location via GPS he told the SUN:
“Taken together, we are certainly headed in the right direction,”
“We’re measuring things better,There’s generally been a culture shift in the agency, a real culture change toward data-driven accountability.” (Kevin Quinn, MTA Administrator)
This is a lot more related to reality than his predecessor's pronouncements in the spring of 2016 when LINK was still a project and not a reality:
“We’re going to have a safer and cleaner system, a unified system of new high frequency routes that connect seamlessly to light rail, Metro, MARC, commuter bus and other services. It will change how people get around in Baltimore because they’ll be able to rely on the system to get there, on time, to where they want to go.” Paul Comfort to GBC
In spite of all the talk about data, it is still hard to figure out how well LINK performs except for transit ridership and on-time performance, two metrics which the agency reports on its own website "performance improvement". The graphs posted there end in February 2018 and they don't look too good.
Green is on time, the change from 2016 is only about 1% (MTA website)

Bus ridership is tumbling with a slight recent uptick. (MTA website)
The SUN posted a different graph provided by MTA. It shows May 2017 almost on par with May 2017 thanks to an uptick in the spring, possibly due to rising fuel prices.

Data are hard to find when it comes to more qualitative comparisons which are not included in the annual APTA report or data published by the MTA. The Central Maryland Transportation Alliance's Brian O'Malley told the SUN for its anniversary article that he doesn't know whether the bus system is really improving:
“But my confidence in the number they’re reporting has been shaken by the series of changes they’ve made in how they measure and report the number, especially because the changes have always been convenient for making BaltimoreLink come out looking like an improvement [...]
the only way to show that the system actually is improving is to make more data public. They say it’s gotten better, but we don’t know whether to believe them. We can’t confirm or deny it.” (Brian O'Malley CMTA)
It comes handy that the Office of Budget Management (OBM) prepared a MTA review and analysis for Maryland lawmakers earlier this year in the context of bills which affected MTA. This little known document gives a fairly comprehensive view of the current performance of MTA's existing transportation systems. It gives also a partial answer to the question whether LINK Bus was a success.
Big trains, few riders: Baltimore light rail (Photo: Philipsen)

The document indicates that Core Bus Ridership has declined precipitously in 2017 from an annual ridership of 75.619 million riders in 2016 to 69.587 million, a decrease of more than 6 million riders, or 7.9%. (By comparison, the bus ridership loss at WMATA was 4.5%). While the MTA bus rider loss  continues a decline that has been going on since 2013, it roughly doubles the previous percentage loss. 2017 was the worst performing year in eight years. Maybe this isn't a surprise, given the extent of this reform which resulted in lots of initial confusion. The real test will be the 2018 numbers. The OBM is not optimistic and projects another 5.4% loss for 2018.
MTA self reporting about rail ridership: flatlining with a downwards trend,
operating far below capacity (except for MARC)

Light rail ridership remained almost exactly the same between 2016 and 17, mobility service had a slight increase. Less riders means, of course, higher cost, especially if service remains constant and operator salaries, energy prices and such would go up. The 2017 cost per passenger trip is with $3.67 the lowest for bus and the highest for the mobility service with a whopping $40.94. The cost for Metro and Light Rail is $4.56 and $6.20 respectively, for MARC it is $16.63, in part because the rail services have longer trips. The commuter rail fare is also higher than the bus/LRT/Metro fare. Thus the farebox recovery rate for MARC is actually the best with 45% and the lowest for Light Rail with 17% with the bus in the middle at 27%. (The mandate to recover 35% has been eliminated by the legislature in 2016). By comparison, WMATA's farebox recovery for buses is 21% and for Metrorail a whopping 57% (Anybody who has paid fares for the DC subway knows, riding it ain't cheap). Not included in the OBM report are the data that were used in the modeling of the alternative bus system. Those model numbers which include average commute times, % of people with 1/4 mile walk access to transit, and % of jobs within walk access of transit were given for early LINK system concepts but were not provided by MTA for later iterations or for the actual system in operation.

It is relatively easy to find  quantitative data which compare the MTA to transit in other metro areas, for example in the MTA open source data or the annual APTA report which puts the 50 largest transit systems into easy to understand side by side comparisons for a number of fairly obvious metrics. In those, MTA always looks pretty good because there is comparatively a lot of transit on the ground in this metro area.(see recent blog article). Even with reduced ridership, the MTA moves some 300,000 people a day on their various modes, not something one can dismiss as irrelevant. Not only is it impressive to move that number of people if one considers the logistics that are necessary to do this day in and day out, mostly on public roads with all the vagaries they offer, not least it is congestion which gums up the cogs of the MTA transit machinery. 300,000 riders is also a lot of people who are seriously affected when transit doesn't work as expected, especially in a region where so many have no other choice of getting around.

Tolerated on a shopping center parking lot:
Suburban transit (Photo: Philipsen)
Among the nation's large cities Seattle stands out with vastly improved bus service and ridership increases that exceed population growth. Otherwise the picture for transit usage and especially bus ridership is bleak, not just in Baltimore. And there is hardly a company that doesn't draw the scorn of its riders and derision of a public that mostly doesn't care.

What is to be done? Governor Hogan's response of paving ever more lanes on chronically congested highways is no better than giving an alcoholic schnaps for a cure. Even if all vehicles would be electric tomorrow and self-driving the day after, cars cannot be the solution for urban and metropolitan transportation woes. There simply isn't the room for them, nor do wider roads make good cities, no matter what car technology is used.

Although it seems so un-American, the long haul of more, better and more frequent transit by bus, rail in tunnels or on the surface will have to be undertaken. If anybody thinks, that Elon Musk can provide the magic solution with cars in tunnels, wake up! He won't. As hard as it is for a country that considers itself as more advanced than any other, it is worth looking at France, Spain or China. All those countries have embarked on high speed long distance rails, high density development near rail infrastructure and a radical departure from reliance on the automobile long ago. So long ago, in fact, that they already have much of the networks which we still ponder for a distant future.

Much could be done to utilize our existing trains, subways, commuter trains and buses better, mostly not by magic tricks in operations but by creating a land use pattern around the systems we have, instead of against them. When we go to the ballot box, we should consider this. As long as we don't want to pay the taxes which are needed for a decent infrastructure, as long as too many people still want to live in remote areas and drive 2-ton vehicles to work, we can beat on the MTA as much as we want, we will continue to see not only a decline in transit ridership but also a decline in our economic resilience.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Baltimore SUN article for LINK anniversary on June 18, 2018 
Video about GPS on buses and the Transit App.

related articles on this blog:

Baltimore's Transportation woes
Let's get the Quickbus back
Is Baltimore LINK a smart service model? (2017)
Ten ways to improve bus transit (2015)
What it takes to provide a bus ride for 250,000 people a day (2013)

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